Despite paying concerted attention to evolutionary mechanisms, literary scholars have rarely focused on forms of “directed evolution” like orthogenesis (evolution along a linear track) and phylogeronty—the parallel between the lifespan of an animal group and the lifespan of an aging individual—analogical concepts reflecting a paleontological manifestation of a wider interest in human decadence. This essay analyzes how these concepts are explored in three areas: popular adventure fiction, social reform novels by Marie Stopes and H. G. Wells, and writings by paleontologists. Across these texts, the essay argues that directed evolution offered a recognizable trajectory with which to render the complexity and strangeness of prehistoric and modern life alike into a familiar linear shape by reading certain extinct animals as moral exemplars of evolutionary failure. While reformers hoped that humans could escape the orthogenetic grooves confining nonhuman animals to extinction, this optimism was shadowed both with fears that humans might inevitably face decadence and with a sense that survival meant mediocrity.

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